HOUSTON — The Wasilla Warriors football team defeated the Houston Hawks 33-0 in the first high school football action of 2020 on the northern side of the Valley. Wasilla had five players score on offense and one on defense on its way to a dominating victory over Houston, which finished 2019 as the ASAA Division III state champions.
“Houston’s a very respectable team. I mean they just came off a state championship so that’s not a big school, small school, medium school kind of thing. I mean they’ve got boys that can play. They’ve got a big line, so our job was to be a little bit more conditioned and just come out with a little bit more intensity without overlooking,” said Wasilla head coach Ken Ottinger.
Mat-Su Borough School District schools opened to in-person instruction last week and kicked off the high school football season with games between cross town rivals Colony and Palmer at Machetanz Field and Wasilla and Houston at Terry Shurtleff Field. Before Warrior quarterback Gavin Harrington and the Wasila offense got rolling, the defense was the first to put points on the scoreboard by forcing a safety early in the first quarter. On Wasilla’s next play from scrimmage, Austin Byron ran the ball 29 yards for the first touchdown of the 2020 season.
“I’m just proud of how they came out tonight. The bus ride here was a different atmosphere tonight. I looked at my assistant coach and said this is the atmosphere we want, it was quiet, everybody was focused, so they’re hungry,” said Ottinger.
With the changing of protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic, each school only allowed 200 fans to enter the stadium to watch the game while others watched from their vehicles in the parking lot. Seniors were honored before the game and Houston assistant coach Dave Reilly got engaged to Suzanne Stehlik when he proposed at halftime.
For Houston, the graduation of a stellar senior class last spring left head coach Glenn Nelson with a young group of Hawks eager to see some action.
“We don’t do moral victories. We play to win. We know we have an incredibly young roster, it’s closer to a JV roster than a varsity roster you saw senior night it took about three minutes so we know what we had there and we know we’ve got a great player in Tolupo Falaniko running behind a great lineman in Ezra Fono and that’s the one thing that worked for us tonight,” said Nelson.
Wasilla scored three times in the first quarter. After Byron’s 29-yard score, Harrington cashed in on a two-yard run set up by a long pass to Phillip Bezhenar that gave Wasilla position at the 2-yard line. Running back Colton Lindquist delivered punishing runs through the Hawk defense and also fooled Houston for a 25-yard fake punt that was eventually called back due to penalty at the end of the first half.
“I’m always the guy that looks at what we need to fix, way too many penalties, we left points out there that we could’ve scored more but I’m just proud of the effort,” said Ottinger.
Wasilla’s kicker Jadon Sheveland went a perfect 4-4 on PAT’s and tacked on a field goal in the fourth quarter. Wasilla recovered four turnovers with three fumble recoveries and a Beznehar interception late in the fourth quarter. Bezhenar scored on a dazzling 26-yard cutback run in the third quarter only to have the score called back due to panelaty. All of two plays later, Beznehar scored on a 29 yard run. Late in the game with the outcome already decided, Ottinger allowed underclassmen to get varsity playing time against Houston, which he says will become a valuable experience for players in the program.
“You’ve got to get those young guys into the varsity on the varsity field just because it’s a way faster game. The way everything moves and the size and everything, to get younger kids in is a big job on our part if we want to go further and build the program better,” said Ottinger.
Playing a six-game schedule against only Valley competition, all of which come in the large school variety, Houston has a tough task ahead this football season. Nelson said that the Houston football team has become a point of pride among members of the community, and that regardless of the score, football players will take valuable lessons away from the gridiron.
“You get a kid like Tolupo who makes it on his journey, he’s a senior, he’s getting it done. That’s why you coach, to watch them come in and they struggle a little bit but they work hard and they grow and they persevere and it’s a life lesson, it’s not a football lesson. I teach for money, I coach for free,” said Nelson. “On the football field you can see these kids come in as a freshman and mature and leave as a guy ready to go attack stuff and take some hard knocks. You know there’s going to be a fumble in his life, there’s going to be some bad plays but these guys learn when they play Houston football it’s always about the next play, always.”
After Wasilla had developed a lead, younger Warriors made a statement during the game against Houston. Izak Punturo’s 22 yard run set up Sheveland’s 23 yard Field Goal in the fourth quarter. Timothy Grisso was featured during a fourth quarter drive and backup quarterback Eli Malave delivered the biggest hit of the night on his way to a first down. Football in the Mat-Su Valley has had to change to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday at Terry Shurtleff field, players and fans alike were able to celebrate the game they love with one another.
“Very few teams are getting to play,” said Ottinger. “So just to be out here I think is just the best thing for the community right now.”